Most people are aware that diabetes can cause serious vision problems, with glaucoma and blindness causes by retinopathy – damage to the retina – among the most well known. Less commonly recognized in the pantheon of diabetes-related conditions, however, is hearing loss. Although hearing damage is also a common consequence of poorly managed diabetes, it can come as a surprise to those affected and their families.
Why Hearing Loss Happens
In order to understand why hearing loss can be a manifestation of diabetes in the long term, it helps to understand the mechanisms involved in hearing more generally.
Normal hearing has several parts. The ear picks up vibrations that hit the ear drum, are transferred to several small bones in the middle ear, and then causes fluid in the tubes of the inner ear to move. The fluid’s movement then stimulates hair cells, triggering electrical signals to the brain. Ultimately those signals are interpreted in the brain as the sounds in our environment.
Although the exact mechanism that causes hearing loss in diabetes patients is still unclear, there are several theories. One of the leading ideas is that high blood sugar levels damage the blood vessels to the ear in a similar way that they damage the ones running to the eye, resulting in retinopathy. In the ears, that damage means that some of those vital hair cells die off and impair the hearing. This underscores yet another reason why monitoring your blood sugar and A1C levels is so important.
Seeing The Signs
Since hearing loss is twice as common in people with diabetes than those without, as well as often being more severe, it’s important that both individuals and their caretakers pay attention to signs of a problem. Because hearing loss is typically gradual and can be easy to compensate for in some situations, it can take real vigilance to detect.
In many cases of early hearing loss, you won’t notice many problems in conversation, but the individual may struggle to hear in restaurants or when speaking in groups, or may turn up the TV louder than normal to compensate. Because hearing loss is often isolated to particular ranges – just high pitched sounds or low sounds, for example – the ability to hear some tones more effectively can help disguise the problem.
It’s also likely that hearing loss starts at a younger age in people with diabetes than anyone suspects, either due to changes in the brain or due to nerve damage in the ear. Because early hearing loss is mild, it may go undiagnosed, so regular hearing screenings are recommended.
Surprisingly, an increased sensitivity to some noises can also be a sign of hearing loss in diabetics, as is a ringing in the ears. These symptoms are also signs of nerve damage, but because they don’t correspond specifically with sound quality, they’re easy to overlook or misattribute as symptoms of something unrelated.
Properly controlled diabetes is less likely to cause significant hearing loss, but that doesn’t mean you’re out of the woods. Even individuals with prediabetes can suffer from an increased risk. Luckily, the use of a hearing aid can help most people regain some degree of normal hearing.
Hearing loss is nothing to be ashamed of, but it can be isolating if left unaddressed. Don’t let diabetes-related hearing loss put a damper on your life.